When Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez recently announced that she had created a unit to review questionable convictions, her critics were openly cynical. They doubted whether a career prosecutor who had repeatedly fought wrongful conviction cases would carry out her promised "change in philosophy" about mistakes by the justice system...
Although Ms. Alvarez and I have publicly clashed in the past, I was not among the cynics. "It's a step in the right direction," I told Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. Similar units in Dallas and New York have worked well, so why not here? Ms. Alvarez's predecessors had acted favorably on innocence cases I had brought to their attention, and I hoped to do the same with the current regime.
My optimism was further buoyed last week with the announcement that the unit was taking a second look at the murder conviction of Tyrone Hood, an apparent victim of mistaken identity. It is impressive that prosecutors would revisit a case without DNA, the magic bullet responsible for 289 exonerations nationwide.
But the Hood case has something even better than science: an alternative suspect who almost certainly committed the crime. It is a prosecutor's dream to lock up the guilty at the same time they release the innocent. The system worked, they can say, and justice was served.
So Tyrone Hood's exoneration may not silence the skeptics. No, there is a much more troubling case that provides a better test of Ms. Alvarez's commitment to right wrongful convictions. The case involves two Northwest Side men who were convicted of murder in 1994, a case with neither scientific evidence nor alternative suspects, but which turned on an issue that cuts to the core of the criminal justice system: The procurement of false testimony by a jailhouse snitch.
Francisco Vicente was in a heap of trouble. Jailed for a string of armed robberies, the drug addict and gang-banger was asked if he could help with the unsolved murder of a Humboldt Park resident. He told the cops what they wanted to hear.
Vicente claimed that a couple of guys he knew, Armando Serrano and Jose Montanez, had committed the murder -- and shared the details with him. Based almost entirely on Vicente's testimony, Cook County prosecutors convinced a judge that Serrano and Montanez were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and deserved long prison sentences.
From the time he began cooperating with the authorities, things began looking up for Vicente. He was moved to a special unit of the County Jail that housed snitches and given a Nike suit, a radio, special meals, cigarettes and regular visits with his girlfriend, court records revealed. Best of all, after he testified against Serrano and Montanez, Vicente got only six years for the armed robberies that could have landed him behind bars for life.
Then in 2004, while serving time for another robbery, he was interviewed by my students and asked about the truthfulness of his testimony in the Serrano-Montanez case. It was all a lie, he admitted, the result of physical abuse and verbal threats by Area 5 Det. Reynaldo Guevara, soon followed by the rewards of snitching -- as long as he played ball. At Guevara's insistence, Vicente had also testified falsely against two other men, similarly claiming they had confessed to him.
"I became known as 'The Pope of Humboldt Park,'" Vicente told the students, "because everyone was confessing their 'sins' to me." On May 26. 2004, Vicente signed a sworn statement repudiating his testimony against the men he helped to frame.
Vicente's admissions would be enough to free Serrano, Montanez and perhaps other innocents, right? Not so fast, prosecutors said. They argued that witness recantations are questionable at best and unreliable at worst. After all, a recanting witness is a liar: He either lied in his sworn testimony at trial, or he is lying now in his sworn recantation. How can we believe a liar?
Fair question. And, the answer is that the Serrano-Montanez case is distinctive in the annals of recanting witnesses. For one thing, if Vicente can't be trusted, then the case against these men evaporates. With a suddenly unreliable star witness, and without physical evidence, eyewitnesses or confessions, there is no longer proof of guilt.
For another thing, Vicente's original tale was preposterous. He testified that, out of the blue, the killers bragged about the crime and showed him -- a drug addict and virtual stranger -- how they concealed the murder weapon. He also amazingly recalled the details of the crime for Det. Guevara, even though Vicente had supposedly learned them more than three months earlier -- on a morning when he was coming down from his daily heroin high.
By the time he recanted to my students, however, Vicente had been clean for several years. More important, his second account was corroborated by facts. His allegations against Det. Guevara, for example, have been supported by more than fifty victims of physical abuse, sweet deals for snitches and rigged line-ups. And, recent court filings by Serrano's lawyer documented further benefits Vicente received for cooperating, including a previously undisclosed additional year off his sentence.
"[T]he State knowingly suborned false testimony from Frankie Vicente and failed to correct Vicente's false testimony," the filings concluded.
It is now almost eight years since Vicente swore he had been a pawn in the hands of police and prosecutors, yet the cases involving his testimony drag on. The Serrano-Montanez case will be heard this coming Monday before criminal courts Judge Maura Slattery Boyle.
Let's see what happens. What prosecutors do next will say a lot about whether the State's Attorney's new direction is a window to justice or merely window dressing.
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